Cardinal Sarah’s Liturgical Earthquake


As many readers of this blog are aware of by now, the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments recently gave a groundbreaking interview on Catholic worship.  Speaking to the French magazine Famille Chretienne, Robert Cardinal Sarah held nothing back about the need for the Church to return to offering the Holy Mass ad orientem.  Rather than considering this simply to be a matter of preference, Cardinal Sarah sees it as nothing short of returning God to the center of the liturgy. 

For decades many have been advocating for the return of this traditional orientation in the Mass.  After all, the rapid and widespread embrace of versus populum worship immediately following the Second Vatican Council had nothing to do with the documents themselves.  As even Cardinal Sarah notes in his interview:

“More than 50 years after the closure of Vatican II, it becomes urgent that we read these texts! The Council never required the celebration facing the people! This question is not even brought up by the Constitution [on the Sacred Liturgy]…”

Of course, others have made the very same observation in the past. So what’s different now? Is this really all that significant? I believe it is.

First, it’s important because of who is saying it. As the current prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, Cardinal Sarah’s words carry with them an authority few others have.  When he speaks on matters of the liturgy, and does so with conviction, one would hope that his brother bishops would take note.

Secondly, Cardinal Sarah’s words represent a liturgical earthquake because they are as powerful as they are unambiguous. This has the potential to be a major turning point in the ongoing effort to recover a sense of the sacred in the Roman Rite. Reminding us that conversion is by definition a turning towards God, Cardinal Sarah states:

“I am profoundly convinced that our bodies must participate in this conversion. The best way is certainly to celebrate — priests and faithful — turned together in the same direction: toward the Lord who comes. It isn’t, as one hears sometimes, to celebrate with the back turned toward the faithful or facing them. That isn’t the problem. It’s to turn together toward the apse, which symbolizes the East, where the cross of the risen Lord is enthroned.”

He continues:

“By this manner of celebrating, we experience, even in our bodies, the primacy of God and of adoration. We understand that the liturgy is first our participation at the perfect sacrifice of the cross. I have personally had this experience: In celebrating thus, with the priest at its head, the assembly is almost physically drawn up by the mystery of the cross at the moment of the elevation.”

Unfortunately, it’s been too easy in the past for bishops to dismiss the writings of Gamber, Lang, and even Ratzinger.  Not so when the words come from Rome.  At least one would hope not.  It would require a special kind of intransigence for bishops and priests to pretend that the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship didn’t say what he just said. 

I have written previously about the influence and importance of worship in the formation and sanctification of the faithful. Lex orandi, lex credendi. This is what Cardinal Sarah is telling us as well. This is why he is not speaking of preferences, but rather of the “best way…to celebrate” the Holy Mass. 

Please note that.  Cardinal Sarah is instructing the priests and bishops of Holy Mother Church of the best way to offer the Mass, and it’s ad orientem.  To emphasize this even further, he concludes:

“For us, the light is Jesus Christ. All the Church is oriented, facing East, toward Christ: ad Dominum. A Church closed in on herself in a circle will have lost her reason for being. For to be herself, the Church must live facing God…”

There are priests and even bishops who know that the best way to celebrate the Mass is ad orientem. From what I have personally been told by numerous priests, many fear the repercussions of a laity all too comfortable with the status quo, with the priest facing them during Mass. Truth be told, many are more than ready for this common turning toward the east. There are already parishes where all masses are being offered ad orientem (here and here) and the fruits are bountiful.

This brings us back to this momentous opportunity.

Cardinal Sarah has squarely placed this back on all of his brother bishops. A decision now, at the diocesan level, to encourage, support, and promote a return to offering the Mass ad orientem is simply an obedient response to Rome. It is simply a shepherd seeking to give to his flock the very best that we can give to God.

Pray that Cardinal Sarah’s words are taken to heart, and implemented, so that once again we can see God become the central focus of the liturgy.

Posted on May 31, 2016, in liturgy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 28 Comments.

  1. The laity were taught erroneously that celebrating the Mass ad orientem was an affront to them, because the priest was turning his back on them. They have also been convinced that other innovations that weren’t really called for by Sacrosanctum Concilium were made to right wrongs, to correct unfair practices that exclude the laity and especially women from their “rightful place” in the worship “service.” With those kinds of attitudes, oftentimes priests have been taken aback by the hatred they have incurred when they made changes and took away what the laity have been brainwashed to think of as their “rights.” And I know of at least one case where the priest was removed by his superiors because of his parishioners’ resentment, which had been fanned by how the innovators had introduced the innovations back in the day.

    • Sadly, this isn’t all that uncommon. It’s the reason why I specifically challenge our more orthodox bishops to implement this within their own diocese, as Cdl. Sarah has suggested.

  2. The laity and the clergy all in it together. Christ descends to the altar at the moment of consecration. No need to look east, west, north or south. Just keep your eye and heart and mind on the chalice and the plate and you will see the miracle. Hard to do when a priest is standing in the way. Liturgy Guy notes that he “personally has been told by numerous priests, many fear the repercussions of a laity all too comfortable with the status quo, with the priest facing them during the Mass.” One could conclude from this that the clergy finally recognizes who it really is who pays the bills and keeps the Church alive, and the laity will no longer be content being treated like second class souls by an arrogant clergy and hierarchy. The laity is done with that church. And they will find churches that go forward, not drag them back to the past if they have to, as happened in one of the two churches cited as an example of the benefits of facing towards east, just like the Moslems and the Jews.

    • Jay, you continue to espouse those tired views of the 1970’s that reeks of self-loathing Catholicism. Thankfully, what you describe sounds nothing like the priests I know, the parish I attend, or the bishops who are presiding over thriving parishes, schools, and seminaries. My readers are also quite familiar with the booming vocations and vibrant faith of those traditional orders and communities served by the FSSP, ICK, and SSPX. What you advocate reads like the playbook of those bishops who are busy closing parishes and schools.

  3. This will be hard for many people. Like all things, if there are changes they should done in charity and with great love. I agree that ad orientem worship during the Eucharistic Prayer is appropriate and powerful but some will feel marginalized. So, there has got to be a pastoral touch, a lot of good community formation and an avoidance of any kind of liturgical triumphalism (the “we won and you lost so deal with it” attitude).

    • I agree with all that you’ve said here Brian. Those priests who have already made the move back to ad orientem (I have linked to two within the article) took just such an approach. Homilies, bulletin inserts, etc. preceded the move back. All in all, I have been told, the vast majority of parishioners were accepting of this change. As Cdl. Sarah himself said, noting his own experience, many instinctively recognize the appropriateness of all facing God (together) once they’ve experienced it.

    • Liturgy Guy –

      Beautifully put. A priest named Fr. Richard Heilman in the the Diocese of Madison, introduced Ad-Orientem Worship for all of their Masses in 2013. Immediately afterword’s, he stated, a few grey haired parishioners grumbled and move on to a 70’s Liturgy elsewhere. What happened afterword’s shocked even the Priest. The Parish blew up, the choir doubled, the average age went from 65 to 35 with many new families joining. Parishioners started dressing nicer including ties and Mass veils. Parish Contributions went up significantly. The full story can be found on the RomanCatholicMan website.

      ad majorem Dei gloriam!


  4. Cardinal Sarah is indeed a Blessed servant of our Lord Jesus Christ. The return of praying to, and towards God during Mass, and making Jesus the center of.our devotion makes my heart scream with joy. I love the Tradition and symbolism of facing east and to God. GOD is who we love and glorify, not ourself.

  5. I don’t think this will change much. It is an informal interview in a French magazine. When a document is issued by the Vatican insisting that ad orientem during the Liturgy of the Eucharist must be the norm, and the Pope adopts the practice himself, then things will change. I just do not see that happening during this pontificate. Do you?

    • Exactly, we can’t insist that even the published documents of Francis aren’t necessarily to be listened to but the interviews of Cdl Sarah have come down from the mountain carved on stone tablets…

  6. Slowly our new pastor is introducing more reverent formality into the Ordinary Form of the Mass. It is great. I think if one goes slowly, explains changes as they are instituted it will work out just fine.

  7. If anyone has any worries that an Ad Orientem facing Tridentine Mass could be seen as strange, antiquated or off-putting to the faithful, they only need to go on the annual Chartres pilgrimage at Pentecost. That would be enough to make them change their minds.
    I was blessed to be there once again this year. Literally THOUSANDS of people take part (roughly 11.000 estimated this year), mostly male and nearly all under 35! Every day of the 70 mile three-day walk we stop for the celebration of Holy Mass. All of us, behind the celebrant, facing Our Lord and King together in the reenactment of His Holy Sacrifice.

    This is our Faith. This is the Truth. This is the way that will lead men back to God.

  8. O. Felix Culpa

    My Pastor started offering Mass ad orientem about a year ago. Every daily Mass and the Sunday evening Mass are always ad orientem, and the Sunday morning Masses are often ad orientem but sometimes versus populum. His rationale was that we ought to be exposed to the whole range of what the missal offers (he uses a variety of Eucharistic Prayers as well). He noted that the rubrics actually assume that the Mass is being offered ad orientem (he read some to us as a demonstration). So far, I think, most people like it, or at the very worst are indifferent. Reading this and other articles online and especially reading the comments about how many priests are offering the Mass either occasionally or regularly ad orientem, I’m absolutely amazed that this is becoming a trend—one would have never guessed so, say back in the 1980s.

  9. Pope Frances has put Cardinal Sarah in a good office in the Church and I look forward to what will be happening in the future. God bless them both.

  10. For Catholics, there is only one location on the planet that is sacred above all others: Calvary, where Jesus offers Himself to His Father and to us.
    If I live in Tokyo, I face West.
    If I live in Moscow, I face South.
    If I live in Khartoum, I face North.
    If I live in Washington, D.C., I face East.
    [Jesus with me, Jesus before me, Jesus behind me,
    Jesus in me, Jesus beneath me, Jesus above me,
    Jesus on my right, Jesus on my left,
    Jesus when I lie down, Jesus when I sit down,
    Jesus in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
    Jesus in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
    Jesus in the eye that sees me,
    Jesus in the ear that hears me.] Adapted from The Lorica of St. Patrick.

  11. Br. John Ambrose

    Cardinal Sahra Prefect For Liturgy For Roman Church REquetts That We Return To The Old Mass. This Is My Prayer John Ambrose Carmelite Hermit God Bless

  12. Well, that’s it! I’ve been trying to be a Catholic for 64 years but this is where I finally give up. The Church is filled with paedophile priests, priests shacked up with ladies of varying repute, mad bishops building themselves palaces (Cardinal Whatsisname with the 600 sq m flat in Rome, the German bishop with the 15,000 Euro bathtub to name but two), the crooked finances etc, etc. and now they think the most important thing is to return to pre-Vatican II. I can’t believe it. I am in a state of deep confusion. I think I shall start going to a synagogue.

    • It is not that way if you choose a good parish that teaches the Catholic faith. I am pleased with my fssp parish and we have holy priests and excellent sermons. The evil things in the church will pass away mostly when people go back to teaching the real faith instead of modernism. I have avoided the liberal parishes with free thinking priests who are more apt to do the things you stated, and have only attended and supported parishes which have good moral teaching and do a lot to win people to Christ Himself instead of to an agenda which can include grave sin and immorality and a path to atheism.

      • Hello Martha, thank you very much for your kind and good reply. Unfortunately, where I live there are no priests. The parish church is 45 minutes drive from my house and we have a deacon. The next big town, (pop. 133,000) has only two priests. The people here no longer know the difference between the Eucharist and a Liturgy of the word.

        In addition the Vatican has repudiated Cardinal Sarah’s remarks about ad orientum etc.

        I wish you well.

  13. Andre Dumoulin

    I pray that Cardinal Sarah reconsider his thoughts and that the church keeps considering the eucharist as a moment of communication, face to face with God. I pray for the media to stop this nonsense of trying to eliminate one of the most important benefits of Vatican 2.

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